THE SCARLET LETTER
SUBJECTS — U.S./1629 – 1750 & Massachusetts; Religions/Christianity; Literature/U.S.;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Redemption; Romantic Relationships; Revenge;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility.
AGE; 12+; No MPAA Rating (but suitable for all ages);
Drama; 1979; 240 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com. (Teachwithmovies.org does not recommend the 1995 version starring Demi Moore.)
This is a faithful rendering of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel about Hester Prynne a young married woman in Puritan Salem, Massachusetts. Hester’s husband has been missing for years and is presumed dead. She has a secret love affair with a minister and becomes pregnant. Obviously guilty of adultery but unwilling to name the father of her child, Hester faces the condemnation of the community. Her hypocritical lover allows her to suffer alone while being revered by the townspeople as the epitome of a saintly man. When her husband unexpectedly appears on the scene, revenge becomes the driving force in the plot.
Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter is not easy reading. This film is true to the text and can assist students in their efforts to follow and comprehend the book. The principles of Puritan society are fairly represented in the film, thus enabling students to understand the principles by which early American villagers lived.
Students will exercise research skills to improve their awareness of early American life and through role-playing and writing assignments at the end of the film, they will be able to present arguments about moral issues raised in the story.
Puritanism had its roots in sixteenth-century efforts by Calvinist Protestants to rid the Church in England of all vestiges of Catholicism. Puritans were known for the moral and religious earnestness that pervaded their way of life. They were persecuted by the Anglican Church and the English government because their views differed from official Church doctrine. In 1608, a group of Puritans emigrated from England to Holland, a country that was tolerant of religious differences.
However, the Puritans were never completely accepted in Holland and were relegated to menial, low paying jobs. They were also concerned that their children were adopting Dutch customs and that Spain, a rigidly Catholic country, would gain control of Holland and persecute them. These concerns led them to ask the English King for the right to emigrate to America and found an English colony in which they could practice their religion freely. When the British crown granted its permission, the Puritans set sail for the New World and founded Plymouth in 1620.
The Puritans believed that man was inherently sinful and corrupt; rescue from damnation was only by arbitrary divine grace. They were taught that man was duty-bound to do God’s will, which he could understand best by studying the Bible and the universe which God had created. For Puritans the source of all religious authority lay in the Scripture itself, which was to be studied by all members of the congregation. Because of the importance of preaching and finding guidance from interpretation of the Scripture, Puritans learned ministers held a very high position in Puritan society.
Puritanism was characterized by an insistence on the use of English in religious services; reliance on the sermon as the centerpiece of the religious ceremony; belief in direct communication between man and God without a priest as an intermediary; the conviction that all believers are equal in the sight of God; and an insistence that church members select their leaders through democratic elections.
The Puritans believed that God would, as an exercise of mercy, bless a small number of people and save them from the eternal hellfire that all mankind deserves due to our corrupt nature. In the ideal Puritan church, all members would be among the “elect”. At some point in their lives, these saints would experience “conversion,” a profound sense of inner assurance that they possessed God’s “saving grace.” Conversion could occur suddenly or gradually, in earliest youth or even in the moments before death. God decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history–and this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives.
Puritans were concerned with how they behaved on Earth, not to earn God’s mercy (they firmly believed in predestination) but because leading a moral and religious life was an encouraging sign of having been chosen by God to enjoy eternal salvation. It was impossible to be entirely sure that one had been selected by God. But this uncertainty led them to redouble their efforts to purify their own lives and society as a whole. [The last two paragraphs adapted from the excellent lesson plan at Puritanism and Predestination from the National Humanities Center.]
Puritans believed that the government should strictly enforce morality by prohibiting vices like drunkenness, gambling, ostentatious dress, swearing, adultery, and Sabbath-breaking. The government was a civil commonwealth of the “elect” and only the “elect” could vote and rule.
The Plymouth Pilgrims, unlike the Puritans who remained in England, wanted separation from the Anglican church.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family that had been prominent in the area since colonial times. An ancestor, John Hathorne, had been one of the Magistrates who presided over the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692. Hawthorne believed his family to have been shamed by John Hathorne’s actions in the witchcraft trials. To distance himself from this ancestor, Hawthorne changed his last name, adding a “w.” Hawthorne’s sensitivity to Puritan excesses is clearly present in The Scarlet Letter, which he wrote in 1850. In this book Hawthorne clearly rejects Puritanism and accepts modern views of morality and human nature. Among Hawthorne’s other works are The House of the Seven Gables and Twice-Told Tales.
The Scarlet Letter is said to show strong influences of the romantic school of literature. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. It was a rejection of the rationality of Classicism with its order, calm, harmony, and balance. As such, Romanticism was also a reaction against the Enlightenment and 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism.
Writers of this school believed in the fundamental goodness of humanity, focusing on the individual and examining the human personality. They were fascinated by the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, dwelling on his or her passions and inner struggles. Romanticists appreciated the beauty of nature; exalted emotion over reason, and relied on the senses over the intellect. They emphasized imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth, were interested in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and had a fascination with the exotic, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, and the diseased.
The Romantic movement in literature took hold in Europe, the United States, and Latin America lasting from about 1750 to about 1870. Romanticism not only affected literature but spread to painting, music, and architecture.
Many of the themes of the book are touched upon in the scene at the end of Chapter 23 when Dimmesdale finally admits his guilt to the community and dies. It will be instructive to review this passage with children after they have read the book or seen the movie and ask them which themes in the book/movie are described in the excerpt.
He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth his arms.
“Hester,” said he, “come hither! Come, my little Pearl!”
It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it. The child, with the bird-like motion, which was one of her characteristics, flew to him, and clasped her arms about his knees. Hester Prynne — slowly, as if impelled by inevitable fate, and against her strongest will — likewise drew near, but paused before she reached him. At this instant old Roger Chillingworth thrust himself through the crowd — or, perhaps, so dark, disturbed, and evil was his look, he rose up out of some nether region — to snatch back his victim from what he sought to do! Be that as it might, the old man rushed forward, and caught the minister by the arm.
“Madman, hold! what is your purpose?” whispered he. “Wave back that woman! Cast off this child All shall be well! Do not blacken your fame, and perish in dishonour! I can yet save you! Would you bring infamy on your sacred profession?”
“Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!” answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. “Thy power is not what it was! With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!”
He again extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
“Hester Prynne,” cried he, with a piercing earnestness, “in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what — for my own heavy sin and miserable agony — I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all his might! — with all his own might, and the fiend’s! Come, Hester — come! Support me up yonder scaffold.”
The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw — unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other — that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgement which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore to be present at its closing scene.
“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret — no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me — save on this very scaffold!”
“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester, with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.
“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?”
“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied “Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!”
“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which He hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!”
Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter — which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise — was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth, to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.
“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic — yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe — “ye, that have loved me! — ye, that have deemed me holy! — behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last — at last! — I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood, here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been — wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose — it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness — and, still more, the faintness of heart — that was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child.
“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it! The angels were for ever pointing at it! (The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger!) But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world! — and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner! Behold! Behold, a dreadful witness of it!”
With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed,
“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!”
“May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!”
He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and fixed them on the woman and the child.
“My little Pearl,” said he, feebly and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child — “dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?”
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled.
“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”
“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest!”
“Hush, Hester — hush!” said he, with tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke! — the sin here awfully revealed! — let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God — when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul — it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!”
That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit. The Scarlet Letter, Bantam Classic Edition, pages 229 – 234.
1. Was Hawthorne criticizing the Puritan view or illuminating it?
In the love between Hester and Dimmesdale, a Puritan could only see a violation of God’s law. As the plot develops, Dimmesdale, who cannot separate himself from the Puritan view, dies. Hester and Pearl survive and prosper. Through these outcomes, Hawthorne shows himself as favoring Hester’s rather than the Puritan’s world view.
2. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the differences between a person’s real nature and how he or she is viewed by the community?
The story reveals hidden natures and generally notes that even the most revered can be corrupt (Dimmesdale); that even those scorned as sinners can be holy (Hester); and that those revered for a skill or power can in fact be morally bankrupt (Chillingsworth).
3. Why can’t Dimmesdale go off with Hester and live happily ever after? What is there about his character and the Puritan colonists as a group that prevents this?
Dimmesdale could not leave Boston with Hester because he genuinely believed in the Puritan religion and in the community. Dimmesdale believed that his guilt, represented by Chillingsworth, would follow him wherever he went. The Puritans felt that outside the community individuals were lost from site of God. Thus, for Dimmesdale, there was no escape. Students may suggest that Hester, already forced to live on the periphery of society, would have been fine elsewhere and, in fact, she did well when she returned to England.
Additional Discussion Questions.
Note that interpretations may differ. Suggested responses are one interpretation. All well-supported arguments have value.
4. The Puritans believed in predestination that could not be altered by human conduct. Do you agree with this doctrine or do you believe that men have free will?
No Suggested Response
5. The Puritans believed that mankind is inherently sinful. Do you agree or disagree?
No Suggested Response
6. Puritans believed that good works and a moral life on Earth could not change their fate. Can you tell us why Puritans were so eager to live moral lives and work very hard to better themselves and their communities, despite this belief?
Living a moral and upright life, working hard to better themselves and their community was a sign that they were among the few chosen by God’s mercy to be saved.
7. Reread the third to the last and second to the last paragraphs of Chapter 5 (pages 79 – 81 of the Bantam Classic Edition). What is Hawthorne trying to tell us here?
No Suggested Response
8. According to Puritan theology, could Dimmesdale have confessed his part and retained his love for Hester?
No, because a confession and true repentance require Dimmesdale to renounce his sinful act with Hester (a married woman) and his sinful feelings for her.
9. Compare Hawthorne’s viewpoint in The Scarlet Letter with that of the Puritans. Was Hawthorne criticizing the Puritan view or adopting it?
Hester believed in love. She also said, “Surely, we have ransomed one another with all this woe!” In the love between Hester and Dimmesdale, a Puritan could only see a violation of God’s law and eternal damnation. It is Hester who survives. Dimmesdale, who cannot separate himself from the Puritan view, dies. Pearl, the issue of the adulterous love-match, prospers. Hester is treated more sympathetically than any character in the book. Using the plot and characterization, Hawthorne is telling us that Hester’s world view is more accurate than the beliefs of the Puritans.
10. It has been said that this novel contrasts Puritan morality with passion and individualism. Can you explain this comment?
Dimmesdale and his fate represent Puritan morality. Hester and her fate represent passion and individualism. But Chillingworth represents the flip side, the bad side, of passion and individualism.
11. Describe the meaning of five symbols in the story.
Here are examples of more than five important symbols in the story. Interpretations may differ. Little Pearl (“messenger of anguish”, the force of life that the dead hand of Puritan morality cannot stifle; the wages of sin; the uncontrollability of passion); the rosebush at the door of the prison (beauty lies within the regions classified as evil); the scaffold (it mounts to heaven and is the place where people die; it is a place where the condemned go but the place where Dimmesdale finds his salvation); the meteor (that light will be thrown on the dark places in which people try to hide their sin; God’s intervention to show his people the truth); Hester’s hair and how she wears it; the beautiful way in which Hester embroidered the scarlet letter she was required to wear (her love for her sin and for Dimmesdale and Pearl); light and dark (good and evil– but which good and evil?; Puritanism (the dark) and Hester’s more natural, romantic formulation (the light)); and sunlight and shadow (same as previous).
12. The names of many of the characters evoke their nature. Describe what themes from the story are evoked by the names of Pearl, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth?
Dimmesdale sees the truth only dimly. It contrasts with the way in which his reputation shines in the Puritan community before his confession, telling the reader that there is something wrong with him. He and the formulation that he accepts, i.e. Puritanism, leads to an unfulfilled life. As to Chillingworth, he is a worthy man who has been done wrong but his acceptance of the evil of revenge, his conversion to the role of fiend, is chills his soul. In that he cannot forgive, he has a cold heart. As for LIttle Pearl, a pearl is something of great value, something that is beautiful. Prynne suggests “prim” which is the opposite of what Hester is; this indicates that Hester, the woman branded for sin is the opposite, i.e., a good person who should be looked up to.
13. In the Bible, salvation is called a “pearl of great value.” Pearls are a precious gift. Yet there is another dimension of Pearl shown in the story. What else is Pearl to Hester Prynne? What else is Pearl to the community? What else is Pearl to Dimmesdale?
To Hester, Pearl is not only a thing of great value but also a reminder of her unrequited love for Dimmesdale. To the community, Pearl is an example of the wages of sin but to the extent that she is pretty and lively, she is a threat, showing that sin can create beauty. To Dimmesdale, Pearl is a messenger of anguish, a reminder of his sin, and his love for her is a challenge to his religious beliefs.
14. Why did Chillingworth leave his property to Pearl? What does this tell you?
That, as to Pearl and Hester, Dimmesdale recognized that by marrying Hester when he knew she didn’t love him and by leaving her alone for long periods, he had contributed to her troubles and to the birth of Pearl. It tells you that he was not just a heartless fiend.
15. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the nature of evil?
Evil can come from intention (Chillingworth) and cowardice or inaction (Dimmesdale).
16. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the nature of sin?
Sin can come from the most caring of emotions, i.e., love (the sin of Hester and Dimmesdale) but that the worst sins come from hatred and hurt (Chillingworth’s sin) or cowardice or hypocrasy (Dimmesdale).
17. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the relationship between the individual and the society in which he or she lives?
There are some individuals who cannot exist without the approval of society (Dimmesdale) and others who can (Hester).
18. In The Scarlet Letter, what are the differences between the town and the primeval forest? How do those differences relate to the story?
The town is the place of restriction and guilt whereas the forest is where freedom exist. Hester can take off the scarlet letter in the forest and be free of her guilt. It is the forest that promises Hester and Dimmesdale a life free from the condemnation of the community. The forest is a place of beauty. However, witches practice their evil arts in the forest; it is also a place of chaos.
19. In The Scarlet Letter, what are the differences between night and day and light and shadow? How do those differences relate to the themes in the story?
Hawthorne employs the classic symbolism of night being a time of evil and sin and day being a time of goodness; dark being associated with falsehood and evil while light is associated with truth and goodness.
20. Who are the most learned and accomplished people in the book? What does The Scarlet Letter have to say about learning and being a good person?
Dimmesdale is learned in scriptural and religious matters and Chillingworth is knowledgeable about the natural world. Yet, the unlearned Hester meets the challenges of life, while they fail and in many respects are evil. In addition, Hester has a better relationship with God than they do.
21. Hester triumphs in the end. Describe why this occurs and its relation to the themes of this book.
Hester triumphs because goodness, life and loving triumph over evil, death and hatred.
22. Each of the three main characters is devastated by Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s sin. Who is best able to adapt and why?
Hester, because her sin is out in the open and she receives and accepts her punishment; she loves and acknowledges her love.
23. What is the importance to the story of the fact that it is Dimmesdale the preacher who was secretly complicit with Hester in her sin? What is Hawthorne trying to tell us by this literary device about society as a whole and Puritan society in particular?
That those accepted as the most holy are often the most corrupt.
24. What themes of this story are explored by the fact that Chillingworth holds himself out as a doctor and, in fact, can heal people, but he uses his skills to intensify and prolong Dimmesdale’s torments?
The theme is appearance vs. reality.
25. Chillingworth takes some of the blame for Hester’s sin because he married her when she was much younger than he and when he knew she didn’t love him. What is the role of this speech in the plot and character development for this novel?
It shows that Chillingworth is not purely evil and makes his character rounder and more believable. Another interpretation is that it confirms and extends Chillingworth’s evil because he is willing to torture Dimmesdale and prevent Hester from helping Dimmesdale even though he knows that he is partly to blame.
26. Pearl feels uneasy when Hester takes off the Scarlet letter in the forest and throws it to the ground. What is the meaning of the fact that Pearl will not go to Hester until Hester places the scarlet letter back on her chest?
The letter is not a mark of shame. It is a mark of Hester’s goodness. Also, as a child, Pearl is used to her mother with the letter on her clothing and she is uneasy when it changes and Pearl doesn’t understand why.
27. Why can’t Dimmesdale go off with Hester and live happily ever after? What is there about his character that prevents this?
Dimmesdale cannot leave Salem with Hester because he genuinely believes in his Puritan religion and in the community of believers. After this question ask, “Is this concept true to life, that there are situations in which people cannot satisfy their love because of some belief strongly held or circumstance of their life?” We think that the answer to this question is in the affirmative but much less frequently than people suppose.
28. How would the characters in The Scarlet Letter have been treated if their actions had occurred in modern times?
Hester would have gotten a divorce and she and Dimmesdale would have been married. She would have been a wonderful minister’s wife.
29. Is Roger Chillingworth’s evil a pure evil or is it something less than that? Justify your answer.
His evil is not pure because he had been wronged and it arose out of the hurt that he felt. He recognized that he was partially responsible for Hester’s sin and he left his wealth to Pearl. However, he was the most evil person in the story.
30. Here are two views of Dimmesdale. Decide if you believe either to be correct or if you believe that a third view is better: (1) Dimmesdale has a strong conscience which tortures him and he ultimately dies as a result of a guilty conscience (or of the physical harm that his torment caused him). (2) Dimmesdale is a man of weak character because for seven years he hid his involvement in the sin and let Hester take the full blame.
There are strong arguments for both views.
31. Did Dimmesdale die because he confessed or did he confess because he was dying? Justify your answer.
Both are true. He died because his confession meant that he could no longer live a tolerable life in the community. He would not be respected because of his sin and his hypocrasy. This was intolerable to him and it was the end of the character who deceived and was hypocritical. But the second alternative is also true. Dimmesdale was dying from the stress of the guilt and this was his last chance to confess and seek forgiveness.
32. What is the better virtue according to The Scarlet Letter: love or piety?
Love, the virtue exemplified by Hester. Dimmesdale was pious; he believed in the Puritan ethic. He was tortured with guilt for loving Hester and died as a result.
33. The Scarlet Letter is viewed as a work from the romantic school of literature that flourished in the nineteenth century. What themes in this book show that it is a work of the romantic school?
It glorifies the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the personal and the spontaneous. It posits the fundamental goodness of humanity and the story focuses on the human personality. The emotion of love is exalted over Dimmesdale’s reason.
34. After her father confesses and acknowledges her paternity, Pearl becomes more than a mysterious devil child. What is it about Dimmesdale’s confession that permits the child to be a full human being?
She is no longer the messenger of his anguish and can be the person she was meant to be.
35. Why won’t Pearl kiss Dimmesdale in the forest but she will kiss him on the scaffold just before he dies?
She cannot give him acceptance until he is true to himself, which involves confession and return to the community of believers.
36. Why, when Dimmesdale is mounting the scaffold, does he rely on Hester’s strength? Why does he then step forward and away from her when he makes his confession?
Dimmesdale is not a strong man in terms of the physical or the moral world. The act of mounting stairs is difficult for a dying man. He needs help. Who better to rely upon than Hester, the woman who loves him and who he loves? Hester, on the other hand, is of this world and strong. Her love for Dimmesdale requires her to help him take the steps to self-realization, even if that realization involves a rejection of his love for her and any future that they would have together. Love sometimes hurts itself when that is necessary for the loved one to fulfill his or her destiny or be happy.
37. Why was it important to Dimmesdale to confess publicly before he died?
To end the torment of his soul, to bring to an end the separation of appearance and reality. Puritans could not live outside of their community; thus, to bring things right, Dimmesdale had to confess publicly.
38. Which of the three main characters has the most modern sensibility? Support your conclusion with a statement made by that character in Chapter XXIII (quoted above).
It is Hester. She says, “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!”
39. Dimmesdale claims that God showed his mercy by sending Chillingworth to torment Dimmesdale after his sin. What did Dimmesdale mean by this?
Without Chillingworth to torment him, Dimmesdale may have been able to live his life out without confession and without a return to the community of believers, still torn between his love for Hester and his religion, still living the lie.
1. In the world of The Scarlet Letter, there is a relationship between punishment and redemption. What is it? Do you think this is true in real life?
Accepting punishment for a wrongful act is a necessary precondition for redemption, in both the book and in life. Heter’s punishment was wearing the scarlet letter and being singled out as an adulteress. Dimmesdale’s punishment was the torture of his hypocritical years and mounting the scaffold and making his confession, as well as the wound on his own chest. Chillingworth, however, refused to accept any punishment and was not, in any way, redeemed.
2. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the transforming power of love?
That it can nourish Hester through her seven-year ordeal and even after.
3. Does Hester repent her sin or does she simply accept her punishment? If Hester does not repent her sin, what value prevents her from doing this?
Hester may repent the sin of adultery, but she doesn’t repent her love. Her love for Dimmesdale is something that she accepts and cherishes, just as she accepts and cherishes Pearl. It causes her pain, as does Pearl; it is hard to control, as is Pearl; it has a special relationship with God, as does Pearl.
4. Why won’t Hester name her partner in sin? Answer for two worldviews: (1) that of the story presented in The Scarlet Letter and (2) that of the Puritans.
In the world of the Scarlet Letter, Hester won’t name Dimmesdale because of her love for him. In the world of the Puritans, she won’t name him because she has not repented her real sin, which is love for a man not her husband.
5. Could Dimmesdale really love Hester and allow her to bear her punishment alone?
That was one of his great dilemmas. Confession, repentance and a return to the community of believers would require him to renounce his love for Hester and acknowledge that it was a sin. However, by failing to confess and keeping his part secret, Dimmesdale may have avoided final acknowledgment that his love for Hester was sinful, but at the same time he betrayed Hester and failed in the obligations of his love for her.
6. Should Hester have remained true to Dimmesdale, or should she have moved away or identified him as the father? Upon what does the answer to this question depend.
Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy in allowing Hester to suffer alone was such an act of betrayal that few modern woman would tolerate it. But it depends upon your world view, because Hester, understanding Dimmesdale’s dilemma and living in Puritan society chose not to name him as the father or blame him for his weakness but to retain her love for him.
7. In the world of The Scarlet Letter, who has the right to punish? What happens when a person without the right to punish attempts to do so? Do the lessons of this novel about who has the right to punish apply to modern life?
Only God has the right to punish. A person without the right to punish who attempts to punish, i.e., Chillingworth, wrongfully tries to take on the power of God and this is a sin. In a modern view, Chillingworth’s effert to punish is more understandable, so long as he does not commit a crime in doing so.
8. What does The Scarlet Letter tell us about the transforming power of hatred?
That it kills, perverts and causes evil. Look at what it does to Chillingworth.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. Compare the conduct of Dimmesdale and Hester in relation to the Trustworthiness pillar of character.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
2. Dimmesdale told himself that he would be abandoning his responsibility to his parishioners if he acknowledged his sin and stood by Hester. Was this a legitimate concern on his part or simply an excuse?
3. What was Dimmesdale’s responsibility in this situation?
4. Did Hester have a responsibility to protect Dimmesdale?
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. Select from among the students a few who would serve as jurors to hear the cases against Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth. Select students who would be willing to play the parts of these three characters to argue before this jury seeking justify their actions. The jury must decide (1) what punishment would a puritan jury mete out to such persons and (2) what punishment, if any, would a modern jury impose?
2. Write a persuasive essay in which you determine which of the three characters, Hester, Dimmesdale or Chillingsworth is the greater sinner. Back up your points with clear arguments. Grant concessions when appropriate.
3. Research and write an expository essay on the rules by which Puritan society in the early colonies lived. Suggest reasons for such harsh regulations and seek to explain why firm social control might have been necessary in a new nation, away from the restraints of old Europe.
BRIDGES TO READING
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- The text of the novel can be found on the web at American Literary Classics.
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- “Puritanism” Encyclopædia Britannica [Accessed October 13, 2002];
- All Encyclopædia Britannica articles mentioning The Scarlet Letter [Accessed October 12, 2002];
- “Romanticism” Encyclopædia Britannica, [Accessed October 27, 2002].